Late in the evening of June 25, 1950 U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson was at his Maryland farmhouse reading when a call arrived to inform him of a serious situation in the Far East. He telephoned President Harry S Truman at the latter’s Independence, Mo. home that same Saturday evening and told HST, “Mr. President … the North Koreans are attacking across the 38th Parallel.”
Harry S. Truman Responds To The Korean Crisis
The next day, President Truman returned to Washington aboard his aircraft Independence for an emergency meeting of the top-level Security Council at Blair House, his temporary residence while the White House was undergoing renovation.
The President heard and approved a triad of recommendations, namely, first, to evacuate all American civilian dependents from the South Korean capital of Seoul; second, to air-drop supplies to the embattled Republic of Korea (ROK) forces under attack; and third, to move the U.S. fleet based at Cavite in the Philippines to Korea. Another caveat was that there would be no Nationalist Chinese forces sent from Formosa to fight in South Korea.
Meanwhile, far away from the nation’s capital in Allied-occupied Japan, America’s Supreme Commander there—five-star General of the Army Douglas MacArthur—picked up the telephone by his bedside in the American Embassy in Tokyo. He, too, was told that the North Koreans had struck in great strength.
North Koreans Had Formidable Soviet Tanks
Long familiar with all the countries of Asia, MacArthur thus described Korea in his 1964 memoirs, Reminiscences: “Geographically, South Korea is a ruggedly mountainous peninsula that juts out toward Japan from the Manchurian mainland between the Yellow Sea and the Sea of Japan. An uneven north-south corridor cuts through the rough heart of the country below the 38th Parallel, and there are highways and rail links on both the eastern and western coastal plains.” He knew that the existing ROK forces were very weak: four divisions along the Parallel and, although well trained, “organized as a constabulary force, not troops of the line. They had only light weapons, no air or naval forces, and were lacking in tanks, artillery, and many other essentials. The decision to equip and organize them in this way had been made by the [U.S.] State Department.” As for their North Korean People’s Army opponents, they, MacArthur knew, had “a powerful striking army, fully equipped with heavy weapons, including the latest model of Soviet tanks,” the vaunted T-34 that had shattered the German Wehrmacht.
The mathematical equation of the rival forces on the ground was both simple and deadly: 100,000 ROKs versus 200,000 NKPAs—plus no modern weapons for the defenders as opposed to all modern weapons for the attackers. The method of the North Korean steamroller-like advance was also quite basic: Swing left and then right of their opponents’ lines in broad, flanking movements, so well practiced by British line infantry regiments during the entirety of the Napoleonic Wars of the previous century, and then plunge through any opened gap in the enemy center.
”Timidity Breeds Conflict, And Courage Often Prevents”
Disdaining President Truman’s term for Korea as a “police action,” his man in Tokyo privately thought, “Now was the time to recognize what the history of the world has taught from the beginning of time: that timidity breeds conflict, and courage often prevents.” Right from the start, therefore, the general misread the mettle of his commander-in-chief, just as the latter did him.
Nevertheless, in these early hours and days of dire emergency, the man in Washington turned to the man in Tokyo: “I was directed to use the Navy and the Air Force to assist South Korean defenses … also to isolate the Nationalist-held island of Formosa from the Chinese mainland. The U.S. 7th Fleet was turned over to my operational control.”
The British Asiatic Fleet was also placed under his command and, with his historic corncob pipe clenched between his teeth, MacArthur flew out of Haneda Airport aboard his old wartime plane the Bataan to take a first-hand, on-the-ground look at the fighting in Korea.
MacArthur Arrives To Witness A Tragic Scene
Upon arrival, he came almost immediately under enemy fire. He commandeered a jeep. “Seoul was already in enemy hands,” he later wrote. “It was a tragic scene. I watched for an hour the disaster I had inherited. In that brief interval on that blood-soaked hill, I formulated my plans. They were desperate plans, indeed, but I could see no other way except to accept a defeat which would include not only Korea, but all of Continental Asia.”
How could that have been, this instant of genius in the midst of overwhelming catastrophe and seemingly hopeless rout? Asserted his later compatriot and eventual successor, Lt. Gen. Matthew B. Ridgway in 1986, “He was truly one of the great captains of warfare.” Like Napoleon who would nap on a battlefield by his horse as deadly cannonballs would claim the lives of lesser mortals, Douglas MacArthur was lofty and serene in his genius, utterly convinced in his purpose, and absolutely determined that he would see all his plans through to completion or die in the process.
Formulating a Battle Plan
Clear-eyed and alert despite his 71 years, with thinning hair but no gray, MacArthur set about his plans. On July 23 he cabled to the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon the basic tenets of his plan, to be called Operation Chromite. “Operation planned mid-September is amphibious landing of two division corps in rear of enemy lines [150 miles behind NKPA lines, far to the north of the Pusan Perimeter fighting where General Walton Walker’s 8th Army was fighting for its life and what little Korean territory remained to it] for purpose of enveloping and destroying enemy forces in conjunction with attack from south by 8th Army.…”
Ironically, unlike other U.S. Army generals of the day (like Omar Bradley, who stated openly that seaborne landings were obsolete), MacArthur was a distinct rarity—an army leader who firmly believed in amphibious operations, based on his own previous wartime experiences in the Pacific against the Japanese Army, working hand-in-glove with the U.S. Navy. Moreover, unlike Truman, Bradley, and former U.S. Defense Secretary Louis Johnson (who was fired the day before Inchon was launched, and replaced by General Marshall), MacArthur was not against the Marine Corps. Indeed, having first planned to use the army’s lst Cavalry Division as his projected lead assault unit of what was to be called the X Corps, he changed his mind and asked for—and got—the 1st Marine Division instead.
Tide And Terrain Make Water Landing Extremely Hazardous
Secretary Johnson had even gone so far as to assert that “the Navy is on its way out.… There’s no reason for having a Navy and a Marine Corps,” feeling instead that the new U.S. Air Force could take over both services’ functions. At Inchon, MacArthur used navy ships, Marine aerial Corsairs and Marine and army troops jointly, in a superb example of inter-service cooperation.
In late August, in the Dai Ichi Building in Tokyo, America’s “proconsul for Japan” listened politely to all the arguments against Operation Chromite, and the dire prophecies of doom that it would fail ignominiously. The obstacles were formidable, indeed. MacArthur later wrote: “A naval briefing staff argued that two elements—tide and terrain—made a landing at Inchon extremely hazardous. They referred to Navy hydrographic studies which listed the average rise and fall of tides at Inchon at 20.7 feet—one of ‘the greatest in the world.’ On the tentative target date for the invasion, the rise and fall would be more than 30 feet because of the position of the moon.
“When Inchon’s tides were at full ebb, the mud banks that had accumulated over the centuries from the Yellow Sea jutted from the shore in some places as far as two miles out into the harbor, and during ebb and flow these tides raced through ‘Flying Fish Channel,’ the best approach to the port, at speeds up to six knots. Even under the most favorable conditions, ‘Flying Fish Channel’ was narrow and winding. Not only did it make a perfect location for enemy mines, but also any ship sunk at a particularly vulnerable point could block the channel to all other ships.
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The Invasion Plan Would Rise Or Fall With the Tide
“On the target date, the Navy experts went on, the first high tide would occur at 6:59 am, and the afternoon high tide would be at 7:19 pm, a full 35 minutes after sunset. Within two hours after high tide most of the assault craft would be wallowing in the ooze of Inchon’s mud banks, sitting ducks for Communist shore batteries until the next tide came in to float them again.
“In effect, the amphibious forces would have only about two hours in the morning for the complex job of reducing or effectively neutralizing Wolmi-Do, the 350-foot-high, heavily-fortified island which commands the harbor and which is connected with the mainland by a long causeway. …